Modern Diplomacy
Nuclear Deterrence-2022

Nuclear deterrence will remain a very uncomfortable but key factor in international military-political relations. This state of affairs can hardly be called ideal, but the idealistic concepts of global peace do not pass the test of harsh reality, writes Valdai Club expert Dmitry Stefanovich.

For well-known calendar and military-political reasons, the subject of the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuclear deterrence has again inspired more than a dozen authors — experts, scholars, politicians and officials — to dedicate texts and statements to the theme. It is difficult to stay away from this process.

To begin with, let us formulate two conclusions from the Cuban Missile Crisis, which are especially relevant today, in the autumn of 2022. The first is that it is impossible to separate regional situations from the global landscape if nuclear powers are involved in these situations. The fighting on the territory of Ukraine has its own logic, but it would be wrong to take it out of the context of a much deeper crisis in European and global security. The second conclusion relates to the need to ensure reliable communication between key actors, which should allow them to prevent the crisis from escalating into real hostilities, as well as avoiding misperceptions of one or another activity of these actors. Unfortunately, in Moscow, Washington, Brussels and other capitals today, there is a very real discrepancy in the perception of the current military-political crisis, the focus of which is Ukraine. At the same time, for example, the “dirty bomb threat” in late October of this year allowed at least a direct exchange of views on the current situation at the level of top military leadership.

Despite the crisis, there is no doubt that nuclear deterrence is still in effect, although it is under serious pressure; it is evolving and is becoming more and more complex and multilateral. In particular, regular statements by the United States and NATO that they are not a party to the armed conflict on the territory of Ukraine, and the desire of all those involved to limit the geography of hostilities can be considered a sign of the preservation of nuclear deterrence.

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At the same time, one should be aware that nuclear deterrence is not some kind of means of ensuring “world peace” or “global security”. Although, of course, it contributes to these processes as well. We will not plunge into conceptual issues related to “strategic stability” and its evolution after the last Cold War; we will only note that attempts to introduce universal umbrellas do not always contribute to solving specific problems.

It should be emphasised that the nature of deterrence itself is extremely complex. It deals both with real potentials (including nuclear ones), which can be literally touched and seen, and with what goes on in the heads of decision-makers and their assistants and advisers. Moreover, it is quite difficult to draw a line between the so-called “deterrence signals” and “nuclear threats” — in fact, these are the same words and actions, and the only question is who perceives them and how. Unfortunately, the dynamics of escalation, including at the rhetorical level, are dangerous despite being completely natural, necessitating certain responses: signals and threats. A thin, if not imperceptible, line runs between “deterrence” and “coercion”, and here the “classic” meaning of the term “deterrence” is even more appropriate — “intimidation”. It is largely a matter of taste whether the goals of this or that signal or threatening action can be called “prevention” of someone’s actions or “coercion” to do something opposite.

“Nuclear deterrence” and “the use of nuclear weapons” are different phenomena, albeit understandably related to each other: deterrence is based on the political and technical readiness to use, in fact, nuclear weapons. True, there is sometimes an opinion that deterrence can be restored through the use of nuclear weapons, but predicting the consequences of such a use is an exercise with rather dubious effectiveness. Moreover, again, the current hostilities on the territory of Ukraine and Russia demonstrate that theoretical calculations about the possibility of managing escalation, even at the pre-nuclear level, do not fit well with reality.

Finally, deterrence does not work very well without threat (“risk”) reduction measures, including “hard” arms control in the most advanced form. The Cuban Missile Crisis was “discharged” by unilateral measures and without coordinated verification mechanisms, although, of course, national technical means (primarily remote sensing satellites in orbit) worked and are still working, but this does not make such a situation a reference one. At various stages of the nuclear arms race and nuclear crises of the past Cold War, the situation escalated quite regularly, and it is not without reason that the past generation of leaders came to the conclusion that a kind of “fence” was needed to avoid war between adversaries with nuclear weapons. The joint statement of the “nuclear five” of January 3, 2022, confirmed the commitment to the formula of the impossibility of winning a nuclear war and the desire to continue work on “reducing strategic risks.” The Statement of the Russian Federation on the Prevention of Nuclear War dated November 2, 2022, emphasising the task of “preventing any military clash of nuclear powers” sounds similar. Let’s hope that the parties concerned will be able to enter into a substantive dialogue in this area, and the sooner the better.

Research in the field of nuclear deterrence, and deterrence as such, will continue, including with an eye to the tragic experience of the events of the current year. All countries, and primarily Russia and the United States, are looking for their own approaches in this area, and sometimes these approaches rhyme in a bizarre way and acquire symmetry. It’s amusing that the American military leaders demonstrate panic associated with the need to simultaneously contain Russia (equal in the nuclear sense) and China (aiming for nuclear parity). Perhaps, in a different environment, veterans of the Soviet armed forces could share their unique experience in containing Washington and Beijing in no less extreme conditions. Moreover, at the conceptual level, the now traditional Russian “strategic deterrence” (including, among other things, both non-nuclear weapons and political measures) is easily confused with the American “integrated deterrence”, and presented as some kind of innovation.

Nuclear deterrence will remain a very uncomfortable but key factor in international military-political relations. This state of affairs can hardly be called ideal, but the idealistic concepts of global peace do not pass the test of harsh reality. At the same time, nuclear deterrence does not exist in a vacuum; maintaining its effectiveness requires constant efforts both at the military-technical, as well as at the diplomatic and conceptual levels. Increased attention to this area has been prompted by the tragic events. One can only hope that this same attention will force us to take real measures to de-escalate and further long-term threat reduction.

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Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.